I have been Gluten free over 10 years now. It has changed my life. Once I eliminated gluten from my diet, my energy returned, the fog cleared, and the clouds parted. In short it made me feel human again after years of attempting to solve my health puzzle.
Yet, a lot of people don’t realize that the gluten free discovery is just the beginning. You have to pay attention. Ask questions. Plan ahead. And yet even if you do all that, there will be times when you get Glutened anyway.
As I write this I am in the midst of a gluten hangover myself.
Being someone who is ultra sensitive to the stuff, a Gluten Reaction is not something new to me. Over 10+ years it has happened a lot. Even so, the effects of getting glutened are not something I can say you ever really truly get used to.
Whether you are Celiac, have a wheat allergy, or non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, getting glutened is the pits. For most of us, finally going gluten free brings with it a new lease on life. A rebirth in a way. You feel like all is well and assume it will stay that way. Yet one little crumb or one uninformed waiter can change all that pretty quickly.
I’m not here to give you all the deets on my tried and true gluten recovery tips. I have a post that lays that out if you’re interested though. I’m here to really spell out what getting glutened feels like to me. Partly so that other gluten sensitive folks out there will not feel so alone. And partly so that loved ones of gluten sensitive people will have a little more compassion and understanding of how one little bit of gluten can drastically change how a person feels.
For starters, I will preface this by saying that just as everyone’s body is unique, everyone’s gluten reaction is unique. Some people have a fairly mild reaction that lasts only a day. Some have a violent reaction that leads to vomiting and intense pain. Some people react to gluten within minutes while others have a delayed reaction that can take several days. Rather than attempting to run down the long laundry list of gluten reaction symptoms (which are a readily available on the web with a quick google), I will just tell you what I know. What it feels like for me.
Here’s what a gluten hangover looks like in my world:
So for me getting glutened tends to be something that is a bit sneaky. Sneaky in that it comes on slowly, symptom by symptom over about 3 days. It happens slowly enough that is can become easy to shrug it off in the beginning. “Awww…you’re just being paranoid. They swore that soup was gluten free”. Yeah, so the first stage of gluten reaction for me is typically denial. I don’t want to believe it really happened, so I choose to assume it just didn’t.
For me, usually within the first 24 hours of getting glutened the digestive symptoms start up. I get gassy…really gassy. You know that phrase “crop dusting”? Well that first day farmers could hire me as their own personal crop duster. I get abdominal cramping as well. Depending on the time of the month sometimes I will try to convince myself it is just menstrual cramps, although a part of me knows better. Anxiety starts to set in a bit the first day as well, but often I will convince myself that’s just from the anxiety of eating out (see the denial pattern here).
One seemingly innocent symptom I get initially is that I get thirsty. But not just any regular ol’ thirsty. I’ve been lost in the desert for 2 weeks without a drop to drink thirsty. And no amount of water seems to quench that thirst.
Day 2 is when anxiety is turned up a notch and fatigue starts to set in. I get tired….REALLY tired. I feel like I’m sleepwalking, which always catches me off guard because only 24 hours before I was go, go, going without any problem. I am overcome by these uncontrollable monster yawns that just just come and come and come. Usually on the morning of Day 2 is when Lady D makes here appearance. And by Lady D I mean the grand entrance of, you guessed it…diarrhea! Once I get that sludgy morning poo (sorry if TMI) I know without a doubt that gluten has reared its ugly head.
Day 3 is when the s*@# hath hit the fan. For whatever reason, the 3rd day after I ingest gluten is always the worst. I go in a matter of days from feeling a-okay to feeling incredibly irritable and angry. This usually means I withdraw a lot from others from fear of lashing out or allowing my anger to get the best of me. The anxiety gets turned up a notch as well and I feel like I am crawling in my skin. Brain fog sets in and I begin to call my students by the wrong name, forget words, and am just mentally confused in general. Mental tasks that previously were easy and required little to no effort feel impossible. I get clumsy and run into things and knock things over. I walk in circles forgetting what exactly it was I was about to do.
Day 3 is usually when depression will hit me too. And it’s weird because as someone who has a family history of depression, gluten reactive depression feels different. I think it feels different because there’s a huge lack of control. You know that your body is essentially at war with itself and that’s why you feel crappy. Yet there is little you can do but just ride it out and try to make yourself comfortable in the process. There is a very real connection between the gut and the brain that is undeniable. There is a reason people call the gut “The Second Brain”. Because it is! Did you know there are estimates that over 90% of serotonin is produced in the digestive tract? (source). Knowing that takes a lot of the mystery out of the neurological symptoms of getting glutened.
Around this time is normally when I start to feel body aches and pains, usually in my lower back and neck but it varies each time. Heart palpitations happen pretty regularly around this time as well, which tends to turn the anxiety up another notch. Often I will get skin rashes a few days in which tend to happen on my elbows but at times migrate, and my scalp will get really dry and itchy too. Basically there are all the signs of an inflammation-palooza going on, and unfortunately I am the guest of honor!
All these symptoms make life feel pretty terrible for a while. But since this isn’t my first gluten free rodeo, I know they are temporary, however uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable they might feel. Slowly the symptoms start to fade in intensity day by day. But for me a full 100% recovery from getting glutened takes 2 weeks. That’s not to say I don’t feel a heck of a lot more human a week in. I just still feel off… not myself… and can tell there is more to go.
As I said before, I have another post all about my tips and tricks I use to recover from a gluten reaction you can check out here. But really the most important thing I’ve found is to be gentle with myself. To listen to my body’s needs and respond without feeling like that’s being selfish. For me that means way more rest and way more sleep. Slowing down and taking things off of to do lists that can wait. Rescheduling things and bowing out of social obligations until the fog clears. Even taking off a day from work when needed (which is exactly what I am doing today!). And remembering that the gluten symptoms, although incredibly sucky, are temporary.
If you’re reading this and are Celiac or have another gluten sensitivity your gluten reaction could look very different from mine. The reason I wrote this post is just so that no matter what getting glutened looks like for you, to see that you are not alone. Sometimes just knowing someone else is experiencing the same challenge are we are can make the sting a little easier.
And if you are a friend or family member of someone who is Celiac or has another gluten sensitivity, hopefully this post will at least give you a glimpse of what it can feel like to have a gluten reaction. Reading about it certainly doesn’t come close to experiencing it yourself. But the gift of the internet is that sometimes reading about one person’s experiences may be just the spark that ignites something. Deeper empathy. Deeper understanding. Deeper compassion.
“The greatest gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” – Meryl Streep
I hope this at least gives a snapshot of what getting glutened can look like. If you are in the midst of a gluten reaction, hang in there. Slow down, be kind to yourself, and remember it’s the gluten not you. It will pass.
If you are Celiac are gluten sensitive yourself, feel free to share your own unique gluten reaction symptoms below. There more we share the easier it is for others to navigate this wacky gluten free world.
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